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Mussolini: A Wormhole in the Fabric of History?

7 min

Am I crazy? Or am I right?

Hyperrealistic fashion photograph Benito Mussolini in Balenciaga puffy coat, Moncler, walking the streets of Rome natural outdoor lighting --ar 16:9 --v 5

I've been reading a biography of Ezra Pound, Solitary Volcano (1987), and I was struck to learn that Pound wrote a book with one of the best titles ever: Jefferson and/or Mussolini. I haven't read it yet, but I took a look, and—whatever that book may or may not say—it got me asking myself, what do I even know about Mussolini, really?

I started looking into basic facts about Mussolini, and what I found was utterly stupefying.

From my academic research, I know a bit about post-war Italy but I just never really looked into Mussolini very much. People think that being a professor of political science means you should know everything about everything political, but since I'm now a free man I have no shame telling you: That's false. You have to specialize to succeed, and specialize is what I did. I spent 90% of my academic career mastering statistical modeling. A tiny minority of the top academics are legit +140 IQ infovores with great memories, who know almost everything about their field. Not I! The typical professor, even a successful and well-above-average one (like myself) can only convincingly affect professiorial omniscience by skillfully guiding conversation to select terrains. When I was a prof, I did this all the time to live up to the image I felt obligated to project. Needless to say, it's fake, pathetic, and worse, it actually forecloses novel insights.

Now, as a humble independent professor, I can be naively honest whenever I encounter my own ignorance, which is actually a pretty reliable methodology for making interesting discoveries.

As soon as I started looking into this guy, I could tell pretty quickly that the conventional wisdom—popular and scholarly—is way out of sync with the historical reality.

I would summarize the conventional wisdom thus: "Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini are the key exemplars of Fascism. They represent the violent suppression of dissent and racist militarism with genocidal tendencies." Of course the textbook definition of fascism has a little laundry list of other checkboxes but when we weigh the gist of contemporary "anti-fascism," I think this is a fair summary of what most people think and feel when they talk about Fascism today: Guys like Hitler and Mussolini, evil and power-hungry lunatics willing to murder millions in the name of Nation, Party, and Race."

The conventional wisdom: Mussolini is on par with Hitler as an exemplar of Fascist evil.

It takes less than 30 minutes to realize that Mussolini's name does not belong anywhere near Stalin and Hitler.

Mussolini suppressed dissent but it does not appear that his regime systematically killed domestic opponents. I could be wrong, but I'm not finding it so far.

Bing seems convinced that Mussolini was responsible for many deaths and atrocities, but is strangely unable to find examples and awkwardly changes the topic.

Quora and Reddit's /AskHistory are notoriously liberal, yet even on these platforms the consensus is that Mussolini was really not that bad.

As far as I can tell, Mussolini might be the single most badly smeared name in all of twentieth century history.

Not only was he drastically less violent toward domestic opponents, Mussolini's regime was especially humane towards Jews, in a wider context of rabid European anti-semitism.

"After Benito Mussolini seized power in 1922, Jews in Fascist Italy initially suffered far less persecution, if any at all, compared to the Jews in Nazi Germany in the lead up to World War II.... Unlike Jews in other Axis-aligned countries, no Jews in Italy or Italian-occupied areas were murdered or deported to concentration camps in Germany before September 1943. In the territories occupied by the Italian Army in Greece, France and Yugoslavia, Jews even found protection from persecution.[12] The Italian Army actively protected Jews in occupation zones, to the frustration of Nazi Germany, and to the point where the Italian sector in Croatia was referred to as the "Promised Land". (La Revue Wik)

Mussolini fell from power in July 1943. As far as I can tell, Mussolini was like a wall protecting Jews in Italy from slaughter; it is precisely after Mussolini falls that the Holocaust comes to Italy (September 1943).

Obviously, Mussolini joined the Axis with Hitler but such geopolitical exigencies are not particularly moral. Nobody in the West is ashamed of FDR or Churchill for collaborating with Stalin, so Mussolini's formal military alliance with Hitler drops from the equation of how we should evaluate Mussolini.

It seems the worst thing Mussolini did was invade Ethiopia, which was pretty awful. One source suggests more than 100,000 Ethiopians died—soldiers and civilians—from the Italian's use of mustard gas. Mussolini had an explicitly colonial vision and he did use racist language. If you look at all African and Italian casualties from 1935 to 1940, the very highest estimate from the Ethiopian government is about 760,000 deaths. The Italian government suggests as low as 70,000 deaths.

We must weigh this atrocity objectively. And here's what's interesting...

One does not need to know the exact numbers to see that Mussolini's greatest crime comes nowhere near the typical behaviors of Hitler and Stalin.

To conclude this post, let's look at arguably the 10 worst actions or policies implemented by Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. This is not academic research, it's a quick and rough compilation of approximate guesses, some qualitative judgment, and stipulation. I'll put this in table format not to affect some kind of academic sophistication, but just to make my intuitions explicit and transparent.

Here's how the table was constructed.

  1. I estimated the number of people affected by each action or policy.
  2. I assigned a "Quantity Index" to each action or policy, ranging from 0 to 100, to reflect the estimated number of people harmed. It's just eyeballed, you can decide for yourself if it's reasonable.
  3. I assigned a "Degree of Evil" to each action or policy, by classifying each into one of two categories: "Extremely rare evil" or "Bad but common." Not all types of actions are qualitatively similar, e.g. trying to exterminate all Jews is an exceptionally evil action, whereas "invading a country" is bad but historically normal state behavior. To evaluate Mussolini relative to Hitler and Stalin, we need some way to reflect this important difference between various state policies. I think the classifications are reasonable, but you can take them or leave them.
  4. I calculated the "Weighted Evil Index" by multiplying the "Quantity Index" and the "Degree of Evil" category. For items classified as "Extremely rare evil," I used a multiplier of 10, and for items classified "Bad but common," I used a multiplier of 1 (no multplied). The rationale is that "Extremely rare evil" is at least one order of magnitude worse than "Bad but common" evil. Obviously the number 10 is completely arbitrary; if I made it 100 or 5 it would just spread out the results more or less. It doesn't really matter, what matters is to give the extremely rare evils palpably greater weight, to create an overall index that gives us some intuition about the relative evil of these three figures. Like I said above, this is just a little toy mental contrivance.
  5. I sorted the table by the "Weighted Evil Index" in descending order.

To be perfectly clear, all of these things are very bad. A relatively low number does not mean something is anywhere close to good. We're just trying to get a rough sense of proportions.

One could argue that Hitler's euthanasia program should be in the "Extremely rare evil" category. It was certainly very evil. However, many educated Westerners today think euthanasia is justified, even without the consent of a patient (with the consent of a family member). I don't wish to pass judgment on this issue today, I'm just noting why I decided that this action does not belong in the "Extremely rare evil" category.

The other tone that deserves some explanation is Mussolini's anti-semitic laws. There were some anti-semitic laws on the books, as I understand it, but as we discussed above, Mussolini's regime was relatively friendly to Jews. That's why this is the least evil item in the table.

When we look at this table, it is hard to see how Mussolini could possibly be lumped in with Hitler and Stalin.

  1. Hitler has a final score of 1914.
  2. Stalin has a final score of 1303
  3. Mussolini has a final score of 28.

I'll be the first to admit, I am no Mussolini scholar. Am I missing something, or erring badly in some way?

If so, let me know on Twitter. I'll gladly update.

Il Duce: Monster or misunderstood?

As far as I can tell, the name Mussolini is a bizarre wormhole in the fabric of the twentieth century.

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